The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee has voted 11 to 1 to subpoena Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and Riverview Psychiatric Center Superintendent Jay Harper to answer questions about issues plaguing the hospital.
Members of the committee were clearly upset that neither Mayhew nor Harper appeared before them to answer questions about services and staffing issues at Riverview. The hospital has been under fire from mental health advocates and the federal government for not properly addressing patient care. Brunswick Senator Stan Gerzofsky, a Democrat, says the panel needs to demand answers.
"We’re the priority, not wherever else they are going is not the priority we are the priority…we pay their paychecks. So I think it’s about time we start acting like the employer, and not the employee," Gerzofsky says.
Republican Rep. Deborah Sanderson of Chelsea cautioned the committee that Mayhew may have a good reason for not attending the meeting.
"I would hope that we could be reasonable and give the Commissioner the benefit of the doubt that there was indeed a prior commitment," Sanderson says.
But the co-chair of the panel, Republican Senator Roger Katz of Augusta says the failure of Mayhew and Harper to appear before the committee is a pattern that is affecting the ability of several legislative committees to do their jobs.
"Every committee which has met since the end of the session, as I understand it, has had these same problems," says Katz. "I can tell you we have had it on Appropriations, I can tell you we’ve had it on the special commission I was on to study hard to place patients."
Windham Senator Bill Diamond, a Democrat, has served in the House or Senate under six different governors. He says the attempts by the LePage administration to control who can testify before the legislature and what questions they can be asked is intolerable.
"This has never, ever happened. Independents, Republicans, Democrats," says Diamond. "And I think we can’t let it go on. We have to put our foot down."
The panel has 12 members, six Republicans and six Democrats. Only Sanderson voted against the motion to invite Mayhew and Harper to appear at one of two scheduled meetings in January. Unless they say within ten days that they will attend, the panel will subpoena them.
Former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Dan Wathen, the court master who oversees the consent decree that governs how the state treats mental health patients, did appear before the panel. He says he will launch his own probe next week into staffing issues at the hospital. And he told lawmakers if DHHS does not take steps to fix the problems he will take the issue to Superior Court.
"There has to be some accountability built into this," Wathen says. "You said you were going to do it. Have you? If you haven’t, what happens?"
Wathen says Riverview currently has two dozen unilled nursing and psychiatric position which has forced staff to work extra shifts. Wathen says that is unacceptable under the consent decree.